We are finally able to welcome a new minister, Nigel Huddleston MP, to the charities brief. It has been added to a number of other responsibilities, including tourism, sport, heritage and the commonwealth games. It’s probable that his time on civil society will be squeezed, but having a Commons minister may also increase political clout.
In one of his first jobs, the minister launched the impact evaluation report into the Coronavirus Community Support Fund (CCSF). In the same week, our CFG Annual Conference was kicked off by CEO of the Charity Commission, Helen Stephenson, who also shared some wider intelligence on how the sector has fared over the course of the last 12 to 18 months. And, clearly it was a week for it, because Danny Kruger MP also made some interesting comments during the NPC Conference. Taken together these contained some interesting nuggets.
The report surmised that some 6.5 million people were impacted by the fund. One fifth of grant recipients had credited it with staving off closure. More than 6,000 staff were brought back from, or prevented from, being placed on furlough and nearly 50,000 new volunteers were engaged. The report goes on to estimate that CCSF created an estimated £1.86 of value for every pound spent. So nearly £350m value for £187m spent. Not a bad return on investment. The minister seemed to agree.
Early conversations between Huddleston and sector colleagues, combined with his comments on this CCSF analysis strike an encouraging initial tone. For example, recognising the ‘heroic’ struggles of many smaller organisations, and concluding that monies invested during the height of the pandemic, far from being wasted, presented value for money, is to be applauded.
I, along with other leaders of voluntary sector infrastructure organisations, am looking forward to working in partnership with the minister. We are keen to ensure social change organisations are at the heart of communities and rightly take their place in delivering the government's stated priority of levelling up.
As the CCSF report shows, relatively-speaking modest investments in the sector led to gratifying outcomes of increased volunteers, the preservation of social safety nets and clear social impact. Funding social infrastructure and community support prevents harm and tackles disadvantage.
I hope the minister will use this evidence to push back against short-term false economies driven by a narrative of living within our means and ‘rebalancing the books’. Failing to include civil society, in all its forms, will lead to longer-term calls on the public purse and a failure of the levelling up agenda.
Whilst my heart aches for those who have struggled during the pandemic, listening to Helen Stephenson at our opening plenary brought home to me how much horror had been averted by government support, foundations and grant-makers. And let's not forget the sheer hard work of those working in the sector to restructure, rethink and amend their activities in order to meet rising demand from people and communities.
Yes, insolvencies are up by one third on last year, and yes, the number of charities over £500k income with nil or negative reserves has risen from 9% to 28% over the year, but we have not seen the scale of collapse in sector support for communities that we had feared back in March 2020.
The efforts of the sector’s workforces to respond to the collapse in income has meant that more social change organisations have survived than could otherwise have been the case. But this came at a cost. Seventy-two per cent of charities told the commission that they had curtailed, changed and halted services to make it through. That means need unmet, research not done, people unsupported. And in the words of Helen Stephenson, for many in the sector ‘the most difficult days are ahead’.
The collaboration of infrastructure bodies, that drove the unprecedented levels of support for the sector, will continue beyond the end of the pandemic and we are now well practised at working together. We stand ready to work alongside the new minister to ensure we have a thriving social sector, capable of meeting the complex challenges experienced in our communities across the country.
Levelling up will not happen solely on the back of business and the public sector. Reducing inequality and addressing disadvantage is in our DNA. Civil society is an essential ingredient in the mix and what we offer cannot be entirely fuelled by voluntary endeavour alone.
Will Huddleston feel bound by the settled paradigms which Danny Kruger referenced in his NPC appearance or will he have the courage to change them so ‘government is outward focused and collaborative in its spirit’?
We stand ready as a collaboration of the willing, across civil society, to work together for a brighter future for all.
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